Apple is working on iPhone technology that could detect depression in users

Apple is reported to be working on a new technology that could allow iPhones to detect when users are depressed or anxious.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Apple is working on developing a new technology that could allow iPhones to detect depression, anxiety and cognitive decline in its users.

Researchers hope that the analysis of daily phone habits, mobility, sleep patterns, how people type, facial expression and heart and respiration rates could all indicate these mental conditions.

Apple is working with UCLA and Biogen to detect mental health concerns in tech users

According to the outlet, Apple is collaborating with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Biogen on research projects that could help develop this technology.

This year, Apple and UCLA - with the help of 3,000 participants - will be studying the detection of stress, anxiety and depression through Apple Watch and iPhone data.

Researchers from UCLA will also ask participants to fill out a survey about their mental/emotional state and compare it with the data collected from the iPhones and Apple Watches. The three-year study, which was initially announced in 2020, would also involve taking hair follicle samples from volunteers to measure their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Other research that may come into play for the new mental state-detecting tech is that of Biogen, who Apple is also collaborating with to monitor cognitive function and potentially spot mild impairment that risks developing into Alzheimer’s.

The Biogen/Apple study is set to take place over the space of two years and will involve around 20,000 participants, roughly half of whom are considered high-risk for cognitive impairment.

If data gathered from the two studies line up with symptoms of anxiety and depression, Apple could use this to develop a feature that warns users of potential mental health issues.

However, as Apple and its partners are still in the early stages of the proposed years-long studies, it may be a while before we see the results come to fruition.

Can phone use be a predictor of our mental state?

Apple’s studies won’t be the first to explore the connection between tech use and our mental state.A small 28-participant-study conducted by Northwestern University has also successfully used phone data to predict depression.

According to the study, instances of depression were tipped off by the amount of time a user spends on their phone, combined with their daily geographic movements.

The study, conducted in 2015, found that the longer a person spends on their phone, the more likely they are to be depressed. Data concluded that the average person spends about 17 minutes on their phone, while someone who has depressed spends an average of 68 minutes glued to their screens. However, these days it’s likely that screen time for both groups has rocketed.

Senior author of the study David Mohr, director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, explained:

People are likely, when on their phones, to avoid thinking about things that are troubling, painful feelings or difficult relationships. It's an avoidance behavior we see in depression.

From the geographic data collected, northwestern also concluded that depressed people are less likely to visit multiple locations, spending the majority of their time either at home or at work. Having an irregular daily routine, such as leaving the house or starting work at different times each day, was also linked to depression. Mohr continued:

The data showing depressed people tended not to go many places reflects the loss of motivation seen in depression. When people are depressed, they tend to withdraw and don't have the motivation or energy to go out and do things.

While our relationship with our phones and routines has likely considerably changed due to the pandemic, researchers managed to pinpoint depression with 87% accuracy at the time of the study.

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